The technology to allow entertaining performances to be preserved and then experienced later, again and again, was invented in the nineteenth century. The photograph, the audio recording, and the motion picture are all nineteenth century sensations. Starting with these, there was some medium introduced between the artist and the audience. People could still go to plays and they could still listen to what was starting to be called live music, but they now could also go to a cinema and watch a movie, or they could buy a record and play it. A business was born to mediate between the artist and the audience, and it even came to be known collectively as “the media.” In the twentieth century this mediating entertainment business became pre-eminent. Hollywood with their affiliated cinemas, and record labels with their radio stations gave rise to a completely integrated and dominating business model for mass entertainment. Soon, as the theorist Marshall McLuhan explained, the medium was the message. The movie studios could, with reasonable regularity, produce top-grossing films, and the record labels could spin chart-topping singles and albums. People didn’t just want to see the actor Clark Gable, they wanted to see an MGM epic (the studio). People didn’t just want to listen to Marvin Gaye, they wanted to listen to the Motown sound (the record label).
American movie studios and record companies became very powerful, not only as businesses, but politically. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are today among the most aggressive and influential lobbyists in Washington. Their monopoly position is under enormous threat, currently, because the very nature of their business is changing. They are media companies, and for almost all of the twentieth century their media had been analog in nature. An acetate or a vinyl record is analog; a piece of printed sheet music is analog; magnetic tape is analog; and a reel of film is analog. Media companies made money by controlling the “stuff” that held the artistic content. It is not surprising that they would want to continue to run their businesses these ways today, as well. The problem is, though, that the “stuff” is now digital information, and they are finding it pretty much impossible to control, in the ways they did back in the middle of the last century.
Movie studios now send first-run releases to cinemas as a digital stream of data — of a very high quality, of course. But anyone with a digital camera (which these days is anyone with a mobile phone) can make a “movie” and post it on YouTube. The quality is lower, but they are reaching a global audience at a negligible cost, unlike the cost of distributing a Hollywood movie to a world-wide chain of cinema screens. On-line videos can become viral, word-of-mouth sensations of the moment, garnering the kind of publicity that movie studios pay millions to get for themselves. Record labels no longer press records, but put digital music on CDs and other media. Even that is a declining business, as record labels can stream the hits of their artists straight to iTunes. The thing is, anyone can now do the same thing. Performers not signed to a major record label can reach an audience directly, and make money doing so. All around the edges, the old monopoly is breaking down. That’s because the artists (the “content providers”) are finding ways to reach a paying audience more directly using new technologies.
Copying is where the monopoly is really breaking down, and again it is due to the fundamental nature of the media. Music or movies as a stream of digital information can be copied almost infinitely with no degradation, at a cost that is cheaper and cheaper with each new technological innovation. This is where the lobbying effort of the MPAA and the RIAA is hitting back, and hitting back hard. A century ago, you could buy a 78 rpm record anywhere in the world, and play it anywhere in the world on any gramophone you liked. That was because you owned the record. Today, if you buy a DVD it is digitally locked to a geographic area of the world — an artificial restriction that is not inherent to the technology. I have fewer rights of ownership over the medium I have purchased that contains an entertaining performance than someone living a century ago had over the leading edge technology of his day. This writer has a DVD purchased in Britain that he cannot watch, unless he chooses to become a “pirate” and break the digital lock. The notion of having bought a DVD but not having bought the right to view the movie that is on it would strike even a child as being fundamentally unfair.
Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the MPAA and the RIAA in the United States, it is illegal to “break” the digital lock that artificially restricts the free enjoyment of legally purchased property. The United States government, in turn, has put enormous pressure on Canada to conform to the restrictions of their Digital Copyright Millennium Act. Now that there is a majority government at the federal level in Canada, an amenable governing party is now going to comply with the Americans’ wishes. We can expect the American experience to be repeated here: “take down” notices against web sites for posting satirical material or reader commentary that mentions proprietary names; lawsuits against students for sharing music; and in general instilling a culture of fear among people to fully exploit the potential of the technology and the digital information that they have legally acquired.
In the end, the MPAA/RIAA interests and the compliant governments they influence are fighting a losing battle, but there will be needless suffering along the way. To me, it is like the year 1900, when stable owners and buggy whip makers could force compliant lawmakers to enforce a 5 mile per hour speed limit on automobiles, or demand that a flag man walk in front of cars when they drove through town. Eventually, there were no horse stables in towns and the buggy whip makers were out of a job. It turned out not to be a net loss, by any means, because whole new industries were born.
For now, the old line movie studios and record companies, through their lobbying agents, have the ear of the American and now the Canadian governments. Millions of people will now be criminalised for doing what is in the nature of digital technology itself. But it will pass, if only with the passing of pre-digital thinking politicians from power, and the rise of the Internet/cell phone generation. The monopoly power of big movie studios and big record labels will wane, and there will be more immediacy between artists and their audience, and less “media.”
A sign of the future lies with a truly innovative, post-digital industry. I’m referring to the gaming industry. Some economists estimate that on-line gaming and computer gaming and console gaming is an industry that is bigger and more profitable than Hollywood right now. But you don’t hear the gaming industry howling at governments to introduce restrictive laws, and crack down on so-called “pirates.” That’s because they have no need of protectionist measures to make money selling entertainment via digital media. They know that any of their customers can download, copy, burn — do anything — with their games, any number of times. But it doesn’t matter, because their business model takes this into account. They are not selling the media, because they know that their media is in the end just a sequence of ones and zeros, that can be made permanent or transportable in any form. They are selling the *game* and they do that through license keys, on-line subscriptions, and other means. Sure, there will be theft or “piracy,” but it will be no more serious a threat to their business than shoplifting is to any prudent retailer.
I’m trying to take the long view. Near term, the law which Canada will soon pass will set us back, by erecting artificial barriers on the Internet and with digital media. It will do nothing to help “creators”, but only help a large and dying industry that wishes to bring back the days when they controlled what people watched and listened to. The nature of digital technology will win out in the end. King Canute may have commanded the tides not to rise, but rise they did. The Canadian government may order people not to use technology in certain ways they don’t like, but the technology is easily capable of doing these things, and it will win out in the end.